Sunday, April 28, 2019

Cheddar and the Leafcutters

"What can you do when geophysics outpaces evolution?"

My personal ancestry has a major limb extending back to Southeastern England so I read with some interest recent discoveries in mitochondrial DNA research, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, showing an expansion of people out of Anatolia from 6000 BC that extended to the British Isles. 

These migrants from the Middle East were accomplished grain farmers and likely regarded trees as something of a nuisance, which is a pity because it was their slashing of the forests in the Middle East to grow grain, along with irrigation and the plow, may eventually have brought the climate change and desertification to Anatolia that then forced them to migrate in search of fresh soil and rain.

I have taken to calling these people leafcutters, because they remind me of the ants I’ve seen in tropical rainforests. Like leafcutter ants, Anatolians built large underground city complexes, not so much to create favorable conditions for gardening fungi, as the ants do, as to thwart attacks by bandit gangs or foreign invaders traveling the Silk Road — another unintended consequence of broadscale grain farming.

Cheddar Man was so-named because his remains were unearthed 115 years ago in Gough’s Cave, located in Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge. He lived about 10,000 years ago, and provided the oldest, almost complete skeleton of Homo sapiens to be found in Britain. Cheddar Man stood about 5 foot 5, had blue eyes, dark to black skin and dark, curly hair. His people arrived in Britain in the aftermath of a 5000-year glaciation that made most of Northern Europe uninhabitable.

As hardy as they were, the Cheddar people were no match for the sheer numbers of Anatolian Leafcutters who arrived in waves from Iberia and the Mediterranean in approximately 4000 BC, landing along the coasts of England and Wales in small skin and stave boats. 

Tests of DNA from teeth show the two groups didn’t mix much. One co-author of such a study, Tom Booth, said: “We don’t find any detectable evidence at all for the local British western hunter-gatherer ancestry in the Neolithic farmers after they [the Leafcutters] arrive. That doesn’t mean they don’t mix at all, it just means that maybe their [Cheddar-type] population sizes were too small to have left any kind of genetic legacy.”

It seems likely my English ancestry has a bit of the Cheddar in its bones. Before my grandfather (10 times removed) Clement Bates and his six children, including my grandfather (9 times removed) Joseph, sailed for Plymouth in 1634, each generation of my family had been born and died in the small village of Lydd, on the swampy coast of SE England, just up the beach from where the Normans landed in 1066. Thanks to the Chunnel, you can now bicycle from Lydd to Calais in three and a half hours. My family had neither bikes nor tunnels then, so for more than 435 years (from the birth in 1200 of my oldest known direct ancestor, James Bate, 20 generations removed), the Bates all spent their lives just foraging around those coastal marshlands. It is at least plausible they fished and hunted there for millennia, fought in the Battle of Hastings, and, thousands of years earlier, greeted the Anatolian boat people in much the same manner as they later welcomed the French.

I find this story interesting for another reason, because climate change may compel us toward two distinct strategies in the future. One is massive underground city complexes, a la Anatolia, where we learn to get our protein from fungi and adapt to the extreme swings in weather happening up on the surface. The other strategy is to exchange grain farming — a losing proposition in the Anthropocene — for agroforestry and aquaculture, adopting the sustainable habitation pattern of Cheddar Man, and dutifully going about the daily business of repairing the atmosphere over the millennial timescales that enterprise may require. 

Of course, they won’t be doing that in Lydd. Unless you enjoy cold water scuba, the time to see that part of England is before a 1 meter sea level rise.

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Sunday, April 21, 2019

Pushing on to Venus

"We need to stop our warming ways or there will be Hell to pay."
I sometimes look back at my 1990 book, Climate in Crisis, to take grim consolation in parts I got right or amuse myself about where I went wrong. I was spectacularly wrong in suggesting that there might be a “peace dividend” from ending the Cold War that would more than pay for the infrastructural changes to reduce fossil emissions and bring on a renewables revolution. We did have a renewables revolution, but so far it has only added to the problem — higher population, more consumption, and no withdrawal from our fossil fuel addiction. The lofty but unmet goals set at Rio in ’92 and Kyoto in ’97 are now well in our rear-view mirror.
One of my conclusions has vacillated between correct and incorrect depending on what study you just read. In “Chapter Three: Runaway,” I described a so-called Venus scenario in which positive feedbacks such as blue water at the poles, deforestation at the equator and melting permafrost pitch Earth into an irredeemable heating trajectory, boiling off the oceans, building a dense cloud cover, and creating 500-degree surface temperatures, much like Venus.

This colorized picture of Venus was taken Feb. 14, 1990, from a distance of almost 1.7 million miles, about 6 days after NASA’s Galileo made its closest approach to the planet. 

Over the intervening decades, various scientific studies have debunked that theory, arguing that Earth has a faster rotation than Venus, that its oceans are so large and deep that the heat acceleration required to boil them would be unobtainable, and that Earth’s climate has several states of repose, or equilibrium, where positive feedbacks are kept in check by negative responses. This is the oft-used “cup-and-ball” model, most recently applied in the 2018 PNAS paper by Steffen, Rockstrom, Richardson, Lenton, etc., Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. In 1986, Kasting and Ackerman looked at what happened when ancient Earth had a surface temperature of approximately 85° to 110°C and concluded that Earth could never become like Venus.

On the other hand, there are frequent refutations of the equilibrating theorems, pointing to system disruptions that occur at obscenely high GHG concentrations, such as 100 times present levels. Even the high-end estimate for methane burps cited by Shakova or Wadhams is only around 50 gigatons, whether exhaled in a single belch or spread out over a decade of 5 to 7 degree warmer arctic seas. 
Dr. Shakhova: We use an analogy where we compare the East Siberian Arctic Shelf to a bottle of champagne. So the gas produces within this bottle and it keeps accumulating as long as the cork serves as an impermeable lid. This lid is subsea permafrost. Before it was just permafrost [on land] but after it was submerged it became subsea permafrost and served to preserve an increasing amount of gas produced from its release to the ocean and atmosphere above. While this lid is impermeable, there is nothing to worry about. But when this lid loses its integrity, this is when we start worrying. This is where the methane is releasing and the amounts of methane currently releasing makes us think it will increase as a result of the disintegration of this permafrost body.
100 times present atmospheric CO2 would be 321,800 gigatons. That is well beyond the capacity of either fossil fuel reserves or stored methane in clathrates and permafrost, or a combination of both, to generate, so we are safe from the Venus scenario, right?

Not so fast. Kasting and Ackerman admit that in 1986 they lacked the computing power to model clouds so they simply left those out. A study this February by Tapio Schneider, Colleen M. Kaul, and Kyle G. Pressel in Nature Geoscience modeled the clouds.

With the advantages of supercomputers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the computational prowess of ETH Zurich’s Euler cluster, the Schneider team was able to simulate stratocumulus cover response to greenhouse warming. At double present CO2 concentrations, about 3°C warming, there was little change. Most clouds are formed because air warmed by the Earth’s surface (or forced over mountains) cools as it rises, condensing water vapor to cloud droplets. Stratocumulus clouds typically blanket about a fifth of the low-latitude ocean and help radiate heat back to space, dropping cool air towards the surface.

Schneider’s group modeled for varying concentrations of greenhouse gas equivalent to 400 parts per million of CO2 (similar to today) on up to 1,600 parts per million. Up past 1,000 parts per million, there were no major surprises. While the world as a whole got around 4°C warmer and human population would likely have ebbed as agriculture crashed, the cloud deck would have still looked familiar to wandering souls gazing skyward in hopes of relief from the blazing sun.

But then, at about 1,200 parts per million, the clouds suddenly dissipated. And without that shade reflecting sunlight, the world warmed another 8°C. Whether the ball fell into the cup and some new equilibrium was established, or additional positive forcings took Earth to 18 or 20°C warmer and eventually boiled off the oceans, we can’t yet say.

If there is a point to be made, it is this. We need to stop our warming ways or there will be Hell to pay.

That 1200 ppm phase change threshold is 787 ppm above our present level of 413 (it was 354 the year Climate in Crisis was published). That 1200 number represents 6154 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide (GtCO2), or 162 years at present emissions, but our emissions are still in a curve of acceleration. As we leave behind the era of light sweet crude and frack for “unconventional” oil and natural gas, we generate far more methane emissions from those fracking operations (wellhead pressure drops fairly soon after a well is tapped, and at lower pressures leaking increases), tar sands, pipelines and LNG terminals and transports. The CO2 equivalents and the decay products of methane multiply atmospheric CO2 concentrations. We are still at the low back corner of the Hockey Stick.

The best my co-author Kathleen Draper and I could come up with in BURN: Using Fire to Cool the Earth for negative emissions technologies’ (NET) potential was about 50 GtCO2e (gigatons carbon dioxide and equivalents) annual withdrawal (although an ocean response mechanism will halve that in net practical effect). Of course we don’t know the speed at which Earth systems will respond to rapid CO2 withdrawal because Earth systems have never done that before, but if we keep going — well beyond present fossil emissions of about 38 GtCO2e — and throw in melting permafrost, the blue ocean North Pole, destruction of the Amazonian and Indochinese rainforests, and other unhappy trends, the capacity to tree-plant our way out of this will be overwhelmed.

The irony is, we have other choices in lifestyle that can get us out of this jam, and they happen to be happier, healthier, and more personally satisfying ways to live. Climate in Crisis at least got that part right.

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Sunday, April 14, 2019

Coping with Katsaridaphobia

"Desert religions are all about scarcity, sea people invading, and Pharoah casting out the righteous, who go about looking for a savior."

Road to California (1936, Dorothea Lange)

There are more important issues to be  discussing than President Cobblepot’s latest tweet, but I feel the need  to examine his wall fetish in a little more depth because lately, we are seeing Democrats, including all the 2020 candidates, buying into at  least part of the Republican scare narrative.  That bothers me. As a voter, even if my elections are rigged, I like to at least think there  might be a difference between my choices. But in the last couple of  presidential elections, I voted for Jill Stein to become the first female-identified POTUS. If she or whatever Green candidate were now to  talk about our “immigration crisis,” I would blow a fuse.
According to the World Bank, by 2050 some 140 million people may be displaced by sea-level rise and extreme weather, driving escalations in crime, political unrest, and resource  conflict. Even if the most conservative predictions about our climate  future prove overstated, a 1.5-degree Celsius rise in temperature during  the next century will almost certainly provoke chaos, in what experts  call climate change’s “threat multiplier”: Displacement begets  desperation begets disorder. 
The New York Times, April 10, 2019

First, let’s be clear. Immigration is a problem. So  is emigration. Climate change will make both catastrophically worse.  Most reliable estimates of the carrying capacity of the planet by  mid-century fall in the range of 1 to 2 billion. By “reliable,” I mean  science-based and factoring in the effects of rapid climate change on  agriculture, water supplies, sea level rise, vector-borne disease, and biodiversity destruction. Some, like the Limits to Growth sequelae, even take microplastics into account through a morbid pollution equation.
Contrast that 1 billion with today’s 7.7 billion (April 2019) people, topping 8 billion by 2024, and projected, but by no  means certain, to hit 9 billion in 2042. Like any exponential curve,  this hockey stick began tilting upward after the Second World War and  continues to incline more steeply by the year, abbreviating its doubling  time with each generation. And yet, on the human evolutionary time  scale, Homo colossus is a relatively recent phenomenon.

As we have seen from many competent studies of the  rise and fall of great civilizations, human population adheres to a  strict functional relationship with its food supply. It is in one-to-one equilibrium. As supply rises, so does fecundity. Conversely, when  supply falls, for whatever reason, deaths outnumber births until a new  equilibrium is established. One need only look to the droughts of Northeastern Africa in recent years for a current example of how that plays out. As the droughts worsened, hunger grew, civil society  disintegrated, insurrections and civil wars erupted, and neighboring  states were suddenly coping with massive refugee flows, conflict  spillovers, and disease outbreaks. Fertility plummeted.
Since 1980, a period that includes all 20 of the warmest years in recorded history and 18 of the 20 most intense hurricane seasons in the satellite era,  losses in the United States from storms, wildfires, and droughts topped $1.6 trillion — nearly a third of which occurred in just  the last five years. And this exponential destruction is just the  beginning of what David Wallace-Wells, in his book “The Uninhabitable  Earth,” calls the Great Dying: a worldwide economic decline, sharply  deteriorated living conditions, disruption to basic government functions  and widespread hunger. Looking deeper still into the future, the  predictions are even more dire. 
The New York Times, April 10, 2019

Ripple effects from the African drought were felt  in distant capitals like London and Paris, where anti-immigrant factions  were happily empowered. While the US is buffered by oceans, the contagious meme had no problem crossing the Atlantic. If you tune to  beltway babble these days, a major chord is our “crisis” on the Southern Border. This plays well in the Bible belt because desert religions are  all about scarcity, sea people invading, and Pharoah casting out the  righteous, who go about looking for a savior. At first glance, statistics seem to bear out President Cobblepot, which is perhaps why so many Democratic legislators have been lured into borrowing billions of  dollars from future non-existent taxpayers to patch a nonexistent  problem, at least for the present.

Cobblerpot’s “crisis,” like the BREXIT meme  contagion, is manufactured; built on a cascade of faulty-logic US  immigration policies rather than by climate-related famines or  US-intervention-based death-squad-blowback in Central America.
Malcolm Gladwell laid it out far more clearly than I can here in his Revisionist History podcast. In an episode titled General Chapman’s Last Stand, Gladwell described a Princeton study, the Mexican Migration Project. There, behavioral  scientists looked at the pattern of movement across the US-Mexico border  over many decades and a curious, perhaps even counterintuitive, pattern  emerged.
The laxer the border restrictions, the less migration.
Prior to the 1970s,  the pattern had been “circular migration,” where migrants traveled to  the US to find work, usually seasonally, but then returned to Mexico for  Christmas through Easter because that is where their family and  ancestral roots are. Because of circular migration, the net immigration  into the US was low.
Anti-Mexican bias has  swelled Republican ranks in the past. In 1955, the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration's Operation Wetback  rounded up some 1.3  million Hispanics and deposited them in random small towns in Mexico. In Texas, 25 percent of all of the immigrants deported were crammed onto boats later compared to slave ships, while others died of sunstroke, disease and other causes while in custody. During the 1930s, the US deported over 1 million Mexican nationals, 60 percent of whom were US citizens of Mexican descent.  
It should come as no surprise that as soon as Cobblepot’s Homeland Security began choking off the commuter traffic at El Paso, San Ysidro and other ports of entry, and imprisoning and then losing the children of the immigrants, illegal  immigration suddenly jumped to crisis proportions. Once you get across  the border, do you think you will risk going home for Christmas? Heck, no. You will get an apartment and a car and keep your head down. You can send crypto home on your phone.
The solution to this crisis is simple. Tear down the wall. Open the border. Allow the same  kind of flow between the US and Mexico as exists between Ireland and  Northern Ireland.

To better prepare for the future, stop the bombing refugees and start planting forests. Yemen is a good place to start. For the price of one F-35 ($100 million and  $10,000 per hour to fly) you could employ the displaced, planting trees and seeing them through to forest.
Of course, Cobblepot  will not do that, any more than he would apply science to the US prison problem—millions behind bars for long sentences, many for conduct that  is now no longer criminal. That’s because the prison system is also  based on science-free myths and fables, baseless fears and tribal  rituals. 
A little sanity could go a long way. There are  greater and more urgent threats we need to consider than a fake Mexican  border crisis.

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Sunday, April 7, 2019

Professor Cobblepot’s Marvelous Purple Fog News Machine

"Time will tell whether Cobblepot’s short game is as good as Mueller’s long game."
"We often recognize an untruth when we hear one, coming from our own mouths or those of others, and most particularly coming from advertisers and political leaders. Many of these untruths are deliberate, understood as such by both speakers and listeners. They are put forth to manipulate, lull, or entice, to postpone action, to justify self-serving action, to gain or preserve power, or to deny an uncomfortable reality. Lies distort the information stream. A system cannot function, especially in time of peril, if its information stream is confused or distorted."
— Meadows, Meadows, and Randers, Beyond the Limits (1992)

Having been outside the United States for most of the Northern winter I am returning to The Farm with fresh eyes.

Passing through the layers of phoney’d up Fatherland “security” designed primarily to chill a passive population and gull them into thinking they are protected less by oceans, deserts, and vigilance against tyranny and more by cordons of stalwart men and women in black bulletproof vests, one crosses a threshold into a different world, something perhaps resembling Germany in the early 1930s or Cambodia in 1975. There is a sense of dark foreboding. This is what collapse looks like.

In the 1980s there was this famous SNL sketch where Ronald Reagan (Phil Hartman) is in the Oval Office talking to a Girl Scout and seeming like a doddering old man with early Alzheimer’s. As soon as his guest and the press leave, his aides rush in and he reveals himself to be a clever mastermind setting national policy in minute detail.

Watching the PBS NewsHour/Frontline special on the Mueller Report March 24 I had to wonder if I am not in the same situation with my opinion of Donald Trump.

Recently I have taken to calling the POTUS President Cobblepot because of an uncanny resemblance to Batman’s nemesis, Penguin, who manages to get himself popularly elected Mayor of Gotham and then uses the position to continue building his crime empire and eliminating rivals. Honestly, for the longest time, I have thought Trump was just the pathologically narcissistic buffoon he is often portrayed as being — a mentally-handicapped blowhard after the fashion of Saint Ronald.

We don’t yet have the Mueller Report, but we know a little about it, and watching the replay of the Frontline special opened for me another possible narrative, one not taken by the documentary’s narrators, but suggestive of another TV drama, the Showtime series, Billions.

In Billions, two powerful and driven adversaries square off in a no-holds-barred cage match. Paul Giamatti’s character, Chuck Rhoades, is US Attorney for the Southern District (loosely based on Preet Bharara) and would-be future Governor of New York. Damian Lewis plays billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, who stays ahead of rivals by cutting corners (loosely based on Steve Cohen of S.A.C. Capital Advisors). The series, begun in 2016, is a succession of traps and counter-traps, like two chess grandmasters dueling in a 48-game tournament.

That was the sense I had watching Frontline’s narrative — Mueller and Cobblepot, the duel of grandmasters. It is easy to think that the impulsive, unmanageable Trump vainly firing Comey and celebrating with Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov is a ‘tell’ that Cobblepot is colluding with the East Side gang. It is harder to visualize, but as good a Gotham or Billions plot, to see Cobblepot baiting the “Resistance” with Comey’s firing and then throwing more meat their way to make sure they are wedded to the Russiagate line. He makes it appear he is obstructing justice without actually obstructing anything. He has the press mesmerized. He controls every news cycle.

Another layer of the trap comes in POTUS’s statement, drafted on Air Force One, describing the Trump Tower meeting as “all about adoption,” making no mention of how his top aides and family had been lured to a meeting with a Russian lawyer for adoption agencies peeved with the Obama sanctions that are killing their businesses, on the (false) promise that the lawyer has dirt on Hillary Clinton. By leaving his family out and not immediately characterizing the meeting as opposition research — after all, the Clinton campaign spent $12 million (unreported to Federal Elections Commission as required by law) for Fusion GPS to commission the Steele Dossier — Trump habitually provided Russiagate addicts their next fix.

The result of these moves, whether by nefarious intention or sheer dumb luck, was that all the oxygen was sucked out of examination, criticism, and opposition to real-world problems being aggravated by the policies of the Trump Administration, to be spent instead running in circles like a chicken with its head cut off. Score a big win for Cobblepot.

I came back to the US from a world where heat waves, droughts, melting glaciers, wildfires, floods, bomb cyclones, and monsoonal superstorms are being taken seriously but now find myself in a perpetual loop of news cycle sausage-making. Of course, it is not much different over here than it is in London, where BREXIT is sucking just as much oxygen, or perhaps in North Korea, where the population only gets whatever news its government provides. Most people might also mention China and Cuba, but having spent time there recently, I know their censorship leaks like a sieve.

This American drama is a 4-year series, 8 if it gets renewed, and the duel between narratives is what keeps the audience. The tables turn for the President when Congress starts looking into his taxes and real estate dealings. These were not within the Special Counsel remit, as Cobblepot reminds his Deputy Attorney General. Nonetheless, the Special Council dutifully passes the findings down the line to the Second District AG’s office, where grand juries are convened. The three-generation Cobblepot empire is built upon clay foundations so the only real questions there are less about guilt and more about statutes of repose and presidential immunity while in office. Time will tell whether Cobblepot’s short game is as good as Mueller’s long game.

PBS NewsHour/Frontline exposed its own miserable reportage in the special. At 31 minutes in, the baritone voice of the narrator says with melodramatic gravity, “But there was a reason for the meeting that the president’s statement did not mention.”

Cut to video footage of Marine Helicopter One landing on the South Lawn and TV woman reporter’s voice, “Last night, The New York Times published details about a meeting during the campaign involving a Kremlin-linked lawyer…” overcut by the baritone again, “As the President returned to Washington, it didn’t take long for the truth to come out.”

Note here that The New York Times, a newspaper run by a many generation Russophobic family and a frequent foil for CIA newspeak, is cited as the authority for “the truth.” The Times alleged, without any real proof, that the lawyer for the adoption agencies was “Kremlin-linked.” Apart from having been issued a license by government to practice law, that lawyer has not been shown to have any Kremlin links. To the contrary, she was part of Hillary Clinton’s Fusion GPS black op, and debriefed Fusion’s principal, Glenn Simpson, immediately after the meeting. 

The voice of New York Times reporter Matt Apuzzo then comes on, over a front-page column headed “Trump Team Met Russian Offering Dirt on Clinton” (all caps). Apuzzo tells the story of Don Trump Jr being misled by the adoption agency lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and being lured into the Trump Tower meeting on promises that he would “receive some documents and information” that would incriminate Hillary Clinton and her ties to Russia. Apuzzo then goes on camera to say that in an email from a go-between, Don Jr. was told this was “part of the Russian government’s efforts to support now-President Trump.” The email document then appears on the screen, underlined in red, and the line about Russian government wishing to support Trump in the election (provided by a third party unaffiliated with the Russian government) is repeated by the narrator. Apuzzo then says breathlessly, “I remember saying, oh my God, it says it.” Then regular NewsHour commentator Michael Isakoff comes on camera to reinforce: “And what does Don Jr. write back in an email, “If its what you say, I love it.”

Onto this logical gap from The New York Times are then strung two years of daily rants by Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, and many others at CNN, MSNBC, Morning Joe and various left-centrist echo chambers, and their counter-rants at Fox News and beltway radio. Meanwhile, President Cobblepot goes merrily on his way disassembling the nuclear weapons treaties, the national parks, the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, efficiency standards, climate policy and sane immigration strategies, all the while packing foreign lobbyists into every available suite in his luxury hotel domain, while everyone who might otherwise resist is tied up awaiting Mueller’s report so they can impeach him. By everyone agreeing to lease Professor Cobblepot’s marvelous purple fog news machine, Mueller’s report will carry into the 2020 election campaign and give the President a giant ratings boost and a serious shot at renewal of the series.

And what did Mueller discover? Surely he explored the what-if narrative that any intelligent reporter would have asked at the start (and Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and a few others did): what if the adoption agency lawyer had no dirt on Hillary? What if there were no Kremlin ties? What if all that bunk was just used to get a meeting so the lawyer could ask about lifting sanctions and earn her retainer? What if Mueller’s indictment of actual Russian-military-sponsored GRU hackers (who cannot be tried and whose actual effect on the 2016 election was nil) was just outing an FBI counterintelligence dossier in order to keep the Special Counsel investigation from being defunded when both houses of Congress were Republican-controlled?
“[T]he Mueller Report failed to mention that the two Russians present in that August 2016 Trump Tower meeting, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, were on the payroll of Hillary Clinton’s oppo research contractor Fusion GPS, and met with that company’s principal, Glenn Simpson, both before and after the meeting — just one example among many of the Mueller Team’s shifty tactics, but a move that speaks volumes about Mr. Mueller’s actual intent….”
— James Howard Kunstler

Rather than consider the rather obvious alternative explanations, the republished Frontline documentary dives down another rabbit hole, exploring whether Cobblepot’s protestations of innocence were an attempt to obstruct justice. Whenever Cobblepot tweeted “no collusion, no obstruction #witchhunt” at this point, he could have been absolutely right, but it didn’t matter, he was just stoking the furnace, as he had done from the outset.

The Frontline redux and the bobbleheads that followed on the PBS special carried on with various convoluted permutations of collusion and obstruction, more moves within the fog machine to control the board, but in the end, there really was no there there.

Make no mistake, we are in a real-world crisis, one that demands the same level of alarm and rapid response as when the Allies mobilized to fight Hitler. The competing narratives are less about MAGA versus Resistance or BREXIT and no-BREXIT as between real-world extinction of the human race and party-like-its-1999. For the majority of citizens in the United States, the care seems to be whether the reckoning can be postponed past their own personal expiration date, a strategy that has worked for pretty much everyone who has died since the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, except for those who perished in the cascading climate catastrophes and their human conflicts and tragedies.

I was fascinated to see two different versions of reality collide when Sunrise Movement youths paid an unwelcome call on Senator Diane Feinstein. The Senator rebuffed their appeal for the Green New Deal by trying to school them in her reality — political compromise, baby steps, scaffolding, the power of seniority, million-vote pluralities. “It's not going to get turned around in 10 years,” she pronounced.

They weren’t buying that. Their reality is dying polar bears, sinking coastlines, famine, war, a significant reduction in their own life expectancies. “Senator, if this does not get turned around in 10 years you’re looking at the faces of the people who are going to be living with these consequences.”

When you have two competing narratives, each hermetically sealed and intractable, about all you can do is live by your own best lights, keep educating yourself, and do as best you can to help the children prepare. The light of hard physical reality may eventually be discovered by those of Feinstein's fogginess, stumbling along, but if you can already see the light, you should be moving to high ground, building a fire perimeter, growing food and storing water. And vote out the fossils.

“All of humanity is in peril if each one of us does not dare, now and henceforth, always to tell only the truth and all the truth, and to do so promptly—right now.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Revenge of the ReGENerates

"Will youth take up the challenge — “grasp the nettle” as it were — or will they follow the example of their parents and grandparents?"

Last week we parsed some excerpts from Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of his Nation, published in 1833. The author described the seasonal cycles of his Mississippi Valley village in the 18th and 19th centuries, before the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In David Holmgren’s over-lengthy mea culpa for Baby Boom depravities inflicted on the planet, he writes:

By many measures, the benefits of global industrial civilization peaked in our youth, but for most middle-class baby boomers of the affluent countries, the continuing experience of those benefits has tended to blind us to the constriction of opportunities faced by the next generations: unaffordable housing and land access, ecological overshoot and climate chaos amongst a host of other challenges.
These are all things that previous generations were warned of by Massasoit Ousamequin, Tecumseh, Sitting Bull (Húŋkešni), Wovoca, Geronimo (Goyaałé), Cochise, Crazy Horse (Čháŋ Óhaŋ), Black Elk (Heȟáka Sápa), Chief Joseph (Hinmatóowyalahtq̓it), and many others, so one need not place too much blame on the boomers. Still, the postwar period was an inflection point.
I am a white middle-class man born in 1955 in Australia, one of the richest nations of the ‘western world’ in the middle of the baby boom, so I consider myself well placed to articulate an apology on behalf of my generation.
We were the first generation to have clear scientific evidence that emergent global civilization was on an unsustainable path that would precipitate an unraveling of both nature and society through the 21st century. Although climate chaos was a less obvious outcome than the no-brainer of resource depletion, international recognition of the reality of climate change came way back in 1988, just as we were beginning to get our hands on the levers of power, and we have presided over decades of policies that have accelerated the problem.
One could also say adequate scientific proofs had been adduced much earlier by Fourier, Tyndall, Arrhenius, Keeling, Broecker, Calendar, Malthus, and many others. I was litigating climate change over water protection issues in the early 1980s, using these types of proofs, and I was not the only one. To claim we did not know before 1988 is a bit disingenuous. Wim Sombroek’s published research on Amazonian dark earths (terra preta) as a means to reverse climate change came in the 1960s.
Over the years since, the adverse outcomes have shifted from distant risks to lived realities. These impact hardest on the most vulnerable peoples of the world who have yet to taste the benefits of the carbon bonanza that has driven the accelerating climate catastrophe. For the failure to share those benefits globally and curb our own consumption we must be truly sorry.
He then goes on (a bit too long) detailing the transgressions of his generation and concludes by saying:
We might hope this apology is itself a wake-up call to the younger generations that are still mostly sleepwalking into the oncoming maelstroms. In raising the alarm we might hope our humble apology will galvanize the potential in young people who are grasping the nettle of opportunities to turn problems into solutions.
We hope that this apology might lead to understanding rather than resentment of our frailty in the face of the self-organizing forces of powerful change that have driven the climaxing of global industrial civilization. Finally, the task ahead for our generation is to learn how to downsize and disown before we prepare to die, with grace, at a time of our choosing, and in a way that inspires and frees the next generations to chart a prosperous way down.
This perspective pinpoints the source of hope, the direction that could and should be taken, led by youth. But will youth take up the challenge — “grasp the nettle” as it were — or will they follow the example of their parents and grandparents and wind up like the tele-tubbies in Wall-E, slurping Biggies while cruising the galaxy in a Tesla Skyliner searching for another habitable planet?

Jem Bendell, in his “Deep Adaptation” white paper, provides readers “with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change.” Writing for Resilience, Dahr Jamail breaks Bendell’s thoughts into three possible human strategies once reality sinks in: 
The first is characterized by intensifying efforts to fix the mess we have created. The idea here is that if we just work harder, we can change the situation. The second is mitigation of inevitable suffering and loss, easing the pain and harm that is already underway. Mitigation slows the demise down, giving us the time for the third, which is adaptation to the life-threatening scenarios before us, or in Bendell’s words, “deep adaptation.”
Jamail adds, “Given that with even our own extinction a very real possibility, even if that worst-case scenario is to run its course, there is time left for amends, honorable completions, and the chance to reconnect to this Earth with the utmost respect, and in the gentlest of ways,” recalling the advice of Václav Havel, who said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”

Personally, I think we need to step back and stop wringing hands. We are going to be pursuing all three of those strategies. To ignore the latter two would increase our suffering and loss, but to ignore the first would doom us for certain. What that step back should bring into view is the liminal era we are in, and the greater context surrounding all our problems and dislocations.

In the 1970s, anthropologist Victor Turner advanced the notions of “limen” or threshold, and “liminality,” the individually dangerous but culturally fertile border zone where the candidate in a rite of passage straddles “betwixt and between” (in Turner’s phrase) extraterritorial structural conditions, passing between identities and cultures while not adhering firmly to any. The liminal zone is dangerous in the sense that it is easy to lose your way and waste an otherwise happy and productive life, but fertile in that it invites imagination and fantasy; symbols and magic; creative expression and deep transformation. It is a region of vague possibilities for profound change.

Precisely when we entered the liminal phase of our civilization is difficult to say, because global consumer culture is a relatively recent phenomenon made possible by the caloric density and abundance of fossil energy. While coke-forged Toledo steel and Chinese gunpowder allowed Europeans to evict the Moors and then turn to enslaving and ethnically cleansing the Americas, coal and fireworks had been around a long time before then. I would hazard to say the fossil era only really got going about the mid-nineteenth century, but was in the long stem of the J-curve until mid-20th, approximately until the Second World War, when it entered the gradual upward arc of the J — the “hockey stick.” In this, Holmgren has his dates right. Since the start of the 21st Century, a juggernaut machine culture, propelled by inventions of the boomers, has been in something approaching a singularity of planetary devastation, accelerating infinityward, as if the hockey stick were flipped to put the blade on the horizontal axis and the handle now running towards vertical, except that at this very pinnacle of seeming unending apogee it has struck a small snag. It is running out of fuel.

After peaking its affordable (from an energy return on energy invested calculus) conventional fossil fuels, boomers dove headlong into unaffordable unconventional fossil fuels (fracked gas, oil shale, deep offshore, etc.) and are closing in on the inevitable financial and geophysical reckoning, including climate change, plastic pollution, cancer, etc. The global empire, mirroring the pattern of Maya, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians and others, has reached a new liminal, theater phase, or silly state, evidence of which is all around us.
It is a region of vague possibilities for profound change.
David Holmgren, Bernie Sanders, or Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez can wail about income disparity, student loans or unaffordable health insurance, but such minor inconveniences are inseparable from this stage of separation. Living in a liminal period is like simultaneously occupying parallel universes, where some people believe in Y2K, aliens, peak oil, climate change, Russiagate, or angels, while others, even friends and family, may adamantly believe the opposite. These universes never merge but instead rhythmically collide, inducing instability — economic, social and political. Science and logic are irrelevant. Adrift, people flail about for life rafts to grasp. If a charismatic right-or-left wing tyrant promises return to stability, he draws followers like moths to a flame. If a cult leader says he or she can offer mental tranquility amidst the chaos, you jump, no matter how ridiculous the specifics of that discipline would have seemed to you back when things appeared more normal. If an authority figure offers you a special diet pill, a revolutionary app, or some other fantastical cure for the ennui you are feeling, you buy. Don’t be ashamed. All normal. This is what liminality looks like.

To get to the other side, however, requires a plan. Daniel Wahl has taken to calling those who are sensing this change the ReGeneration. It is a useful term. What needs to be regenerated is not a human society that was appropriate at the beginning of the industrial era, or for that matter, the desert religions developed to preside over apportionment of artificial scarcities after humans foolishly cut down forests and salted their soils 3000 years ago. What needs to be regenerated this time are those trees and those soils. Humans regenerate, nature deliminates.

To guide these ReGENerates and to beckon legions of fresh converts to see what is right in front of them and join, we have Transition Towns, the Global Ecovillage Network (GEN) and Ecosystem Restoration Camps. These councils, each in their own way, have been exploring the other side of these rites of passage: post-liminal bioregional tribes; patterns of living that can be sustained into fragile, hazardous and uncertain futures; terraforming damaged landscapes to bring forth water from rock; permacultural, equitable, gift economies. What happens every year at Burning Man or Glastonbury, and perhaps this year at Woodstock 50, may not be perfect representations but they are open source laboratories where anything goes and no idea is spurned.

To the degree that we are really seeking a compromise — some sort of denouement between collapse and the status quo ante — we are on shaky ground. We’d be better off studying Black Hawk or Black Elk.

Ecosystem Restoration Camps

There also exist in these times what Turner called “ritual liminars” or “edgemen,” who recognize both the peril and the opportunity but do not seek personal advantage in the moment, rather serve as guides, ferrying candidates to the far shore. They fit Joanna Macy’s definition of an activist — “anyone who does something for more than personal advantage.”

One such edgeman is John Dennis Liu, currently Ecosystems Ambassador for the Commonland Foundation and a Visiting Fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology. Liu is progenitor of the Ecosystem Restoration Camps

He writes from a recent meeting in California, where some one hundred of his far-shore designers met to formulate a resilience masterplan for the town of Paradise after 2018’s devastating wildfires:
We know enough to say that Biodiversity, Biomass and Accumulated Organic Matter are the evolutionary factors that have always regulated the Earth’s climate (as well as soil fertility, biodiversity and the fresh water system (hydrological cycle).
Each of us affects this every day with all sorts of choices. When we are unconscious of the importance of the need for total vegetative cover, the role of the accumulating organic matter and the amazing diversity many of our choices are negative. Consider over-consumption, energy use, urban design, industrial agriculture, even just how we make grass lawns in all biomes.
When we understand how natural ecological systems work to cool, to infiltrate water, to support the microbial and fungal communities that transformed the Earth making it possible for us to exist then we act differently.
It really gets interesting when we realize that together we are powerful. We can join together in Ecosystem Restoration Camps and immediately and directly have a major impact on maintaining total vegetative cover, encouraging biodiversity, growing fertile soils, lowering temperatures, increasing moisture availability, and regulating the Earth’s climate.
When we have this level of understanding we realize that it is not just our negative behavior that affects the Earth’s climate. We can learn and implement all the best practices to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Then we are the answer to climate change.
Liu’s dream is to have camps all over the world and engage millions of candidates in this rite of passage, embodying the change they want to see. ERC created a non-profit foundation in the Netherlands and set up a prototype camp in Spain in 2017. A second camp began in Mexico at the Via Organica Ranch in San Miguel de Allende in 2018. Now in California the edgeman met with his neophytes to discuss making camp in Paradise.

ERC is using social media to generate subscriptions of 10 Euros per month or 120 Euros per year. Liu’s message is catchy— “Let’s go camping and restore a little bit of paradise every day.”

What may coalesce from these kinds of experiments could be something like Black Hawk’s village; it could be something like the “technicolor Amish” phase of The Farm; or it could be something entirely different and unpredictable. Holmgren is right about this: it will be the ReGeneration’s choices that matter, not the Baby Boom’s.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
― Wendell Berry

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Sunday, March 24, 2019

Black Hawk's 11 Percent Solution

"They built a model whose proof of fitness for purpose is that it sustained not only the two-leggeds but soils, forests, lakes, rivers, and bounteous biodiversity."

Last week I left you with the usual litany of advice/warning/prognostications that one who travels these familiar circles reads all the time. As such, my rantings only serve the cause of confirmation bias, or perhaps a normalization process, but can’t really alter anyone’s thinking. I reiterated, among other things,
  • Growth, whether of material “wealth” or population, cannot be sustained and some serious degrowth is overdue. You can get as much from looking at the Baltic Exchange Dry Index or the Dow.

  • If production cannot be decoupled from quality of life then we are chasing a paradox because we live on a finite planet of limited resources.
  • There is good news in that at least some of our problems can be addressed by reversing climate change and building ecosystem health through a multitude of natural, antifragile and frugal means.
  • However, none of these things are being done at any significant scale, and that scaling seems dangerously far off.
  • We are poised at the edge of the Seneca Cliff and will need to find a better way down than leaping without a parachute.

If you found your way here you probably have heard all this before. Likely you have also heard me or someone else explain the exponential function and why that matters so much. The recent IPCC report on the Paris Agreement 1.5 degree target said, owing to our procrastination, human society will need to go on a near-starvation diet of fossil fuels and to decarbonize the global economy, taking a glide path for industrial civilization with an angle downward of approximately 11 percent per year in order to halve production of anthropogenic greenhouse gases every 7 years for the remainder of the century.

Trying to imagine this is like picturing the surprise of a pilot at the controls of a 737-MAX when his flight computer takes over and pitches the plane into an uncorrectable 11% dive.

By 2050, we need to be at or close to zero emissions, IPCC says. And that will not be enough.

Because we exceeded then-considered safe concentrations for warming the planet in the late 1980s to early 1990s when we crossed the 350 ppm CO2 boundary, we will need to keep reducing for an extended period after we pass zero emissions. We have to remove the legacy emissions we generated while delaying. We have to stay on the decline slope until we bring back the natural carbon equilibrium of the oceans and arrest whatever tipping points have already tipped. We can't rebuild the ice at the poles or put back melted glaciers but we can restore the atmosphere and oceans to something more closely resembling conditions before Col. Drake first raised oil from the ground in Titusville Pennsylvania in 1864. That is our current mandate.

The alternative is near term human extinction.

My readings this week pursued a different context, but the curious mind being what it is, connections were made and so now we come back around full circle. I read Autobiography of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak, or Black Hawk, Embracing the Traditions of his Nation published in 1833, 5 years before the author expired at age 70 or 71. Among the stories the great Sauk chief related was how his people had lived in the Mississippi Valley in the centuries before Europeans arrived.

Last week we spoke of surfer lifestyles as a way to decouple production and consumption. This week we can look at how indigenous peoples in North America created a steady-state human economy that harmonized with natural limits for tens of thousands of years or longer. They built a model sustainable society, with some features we may find abhorrent and others we could value, but whose ultimate proof of fitness for purpose is that it sustained not only the two-leggeds but soils, forests, lakes, rivers, and bounteous biodiversity, some megafauna losses notwithstanding.

Black Hawk describes the annual cycle of life for his village:
Here we found that troops had arrived to build a fort at Rock Island… we were very sorry, as this was the best island on the Mississippi, and had long been the resort of our young people during the summer. It was our garden (like the white people have near to their big villages) which supplied us with strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plums, apples, and nuts of different kinds; and its waters supplied us with fine fish, being situated in the rapids of the river. In my early life, I spent many happy days on this island.
Our village was situated on the north side of Rock River, at the foot of its rapids, and on the point of land between Rock River and the Mississippi. In its front, a prairie extended to the bank of the Mississippi; and in our rear, a continued bluff, gently ascending from the prairie. On the side of this bluff we had our corn fields, extending about two miles up, running parallel with the Mississippi; where we joined those of the Foxes, whose village was on the bank of the Mississippi, opposite the lower end of Rock Island, and three miles distant from ours. We had about eight hundred acres in cultivation, including what we had on the islands of Rock River. The land around our village, uncultivated, was covered with bluegrass, which made excellent pasture for our horses. Several fine springs broke out of the bluff nearby, from which we were supplied with good water. The rapids of Rock River furnished us with an abundance of excellent fish, and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkins, and squashes. We always had plenty — our children never cried with hunger, nor our people were ever in want. Here our village had stood for more than a hundred years, during all which time we were the undisputed possessors of the valley of the Mississippi, from the Ouisconsin to the Portage des Sioux, near the mouth of the Missouri, being about seven hundred miles in length.

When we returned to our village in the Spring from our wintering grounds, we would finish trading with our traders, who always followed us to our village. We purposely kept some of our fine furs for this trade; and, as there was great competition among them, who should get these skins…. When this was ended, the next thing to be done was to bury our dead, such as had died during the winter. This is a great medicine feast. The relations of those who have died give all the goods they have purchased as presents to their friends — thereby reducing themselves to poverty, to show the Great Spirit that they are humble, so that he will take pity on them. We would next open the caches and take out corn and other provisions, which had been put up in the Fall, and then commence repairing our lodges. As soon as this is accomplished, we repair the fences around our fields, and clean them off, ready for planting corn.
The crane dance often lasts two or three days. When this is over, we feast again and have our national dance. The large square in the village is swept and prepared for the purpose. The chiefs and old warriors take seats on mats which have been spread at the upper end of the square, the drummers and singers come next, and the braves and women form the sides, leaving a large space in the middle. The drums beat, and the singers commence. … What pleasure it is to an old warrior, to see his son come forward and relate his exploits — it makes him feel young, and induces him to enter the square, and “fight his battles o’er again.”
When our national dance is over — our corn fields hoed, and every weed dug up, and our corn about knee-high, all our young men would start in a direction towards sundown [across the Mississippi River into Iowa], to hunt deer and buffalo — being prepared, also, to kill Sioux, if any are found on our hunting grounds — a part of our old men and women to the lead mines to make lead — and the remainder of our people start to fish, and get mat stuff. Everyone leaves the village and remains about forty days. They then return: the hunting party bringing in dried buffalo and deer meat, and some times Sioux scalps, when they are found trespassing on our hunting grounds. At other times they are met by a party of Sioux too strong for them and are driven in. If the Sioux have killed the Sauks last, they expect to be retaliated upon and will fly before them, and vice versa. Each party knows that the other has a right to retaliate, which induces those who have killed last to give way before their enemy — as neither wish to strike, except to avenge the death of their relatives. All our wars are declared by the relatives of those killed; or by aggressions upon our hunting grounds.
The part about returning with Sioux scalps may seem barbaric to our sensibilities but if we can step back and see what that process was about, it was really resource stewardship. Black Hawk says elsewhere in his narrative that the Creator placed the nations in their particular places but in actuality these bioregional borders were fluid. Changing climate and other factors brought about migrations. Nations patrolled their borders to keep out poachers and to protect their own winter provisions. Within their hunting range, they secured the balance of predators and prey. The Sioux were plains nations, horseback buffalo hunters. They were kept from expanding into the forests of the Sauk, Fox, and Iowans only by vigilance. Between the Sauk, Fox, and Iowans, there was a tenuous truce that permitted shared hunting grounds and provided for retribution when offenses were committed.

It might be noted that Black Hawk says they had lived on the Rock River for one hundred years. Indeed, the Sauk only arrived to the area in the 1730s, following the Second Fox War. During that conflict, occasioned by the Fox resisting being made French slaves (more than 1000 were held as slaves in New France) the French and their Huron allies pursued destruction of the Fox to such an extent that what had been one of the largest, most powerful and wealthiest nations in North America was nearly extinguished. The destruction of the Fox allowed the Sauk to settle where today is the Illinois Quad Cities.

Black Hawk relates the story of a young brave who killed an Iowan. To keep the peace, he orders the brave to present himself to the Iowan village and surrender his life. The brave is overwhelmed with sickness, and his brother steps forward to go in his place. At the Iowan village, although the young braves taunt and want to kill the boy, the elders learn this story and decide to pardon the brother, sending him back to the Sauk with horses and corn. Black Hawk says the Sauk always respected the Iowans for their mercy and honor on that occasion.
We find it difficult to imagine fitting the population of Moline into the lodges of the Sauk, Fox and Iowans and sustaining it on fish, corn, squash, beans, bear meat and dried venison. And yet, that is what 11% implies.
These lives may seem overly simple to us, to the point of being boring, or brutish. If we look at Quad Cities Illinois today, the Rock River running through, Moline city limits separated from Davenport Iowa by Rock Island in the middle of the Mississippi, we find it difficult to imagine fitting that population into the lodges of the Sauk, Fox, and Iowans and sustaining it on fish, corn, squash, beans,  bear meat and dried venison. And yet, that is what 11% may imply. When we take an 11% per year decline slope out past negative 100%, and negative 200%, we take ourselves back to something more closely resembling the ways of our ancestors before the steam engine.

What I confirmed by reading Black Hawk's account is the same as we might learn from any number of anthropology studies; that voluntary simplicity and gift economies provide for all, allow ample time for leisure, celebration, and sport, foster honesty and integrity as the highest social values, and encourage exploration of natural spiritual powers through deep observation, revelation, and clairvoyant dreaming. It is no worse than the lives we live now and in many ways better. This is why in the history of the American colonies those who switched sides and became Indians remained so, while Indians who tried out Western Civilization usually lasted only a short time in their strange surroundings before returning home.

Most of us likely cannot conceive of how a society as complex and populous as modern techno-consumer culture could transition in a century or less to something resembling Black Hawk's village. We take half measures, like installing renewable energy, supporting a Green New Deal or joining transition towns, which are steps along the path, but not nearly enough to get where we must go. Next week we will have a look at David Holmgren's latest missive, the strategies of the Global Ecovillage Network and Ecosystem Restoration Camps, and how to adopt the most realistic patterns of living that can be sustained into a fragile, hazardous and uncertain future.

In an Esquire interview, 2020 presidential candidate and mayor of South Bend Indiana Pete Buttigieg was asked, “Would you support reparations to compensate for America’s history of slavery?” He replied:
I’ve never seen a specific, workable proposal. But what I do think is convincing is the idea that we have to be intentional about addressing or reversing harms and inequities that didn’t just happen on their own.
In the aftermath of the superfloods now striking the former domains of the Sioux, Iowans, Fox and Sauk, one policy that might be worth considering is rather than spend billions of fiat currency to compensate farmers for losses and rebuild an unnatural economy there, to simply buy up all that river bottom land and give it back to the Nations still in exile in Oklahoma. Let their young people who want to do it rebuild a model that was once and for a very long time regenerative by design and could be again.
Go take a sister, then, by the hand
Lead her away from this foreign land
Far away, where we might laugh again
We are leaving, you don’t need us
— Crosby, Stills and Kantner, Wooden Ships (1968)

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